The Psychological Impact of IoT at Work
The Internet of Things (“IoT”) is an inevitable reality in today’s workplaces. Thanks to the immense availability of mobile connectivity along with improved speeds and bandwidth, more and more items are gaining Internet capabilities that were unimaginable just a few years ago.
Inevitable thought IoT is, it is also ambiguous. What impact will this transformative new reality have on large enterprises and their workforces? What challenges will be introduced by an even more diverse, ever-changing assortment of Internet-ready devices that may be compromised?
It may be years before the full picture becomes clear, but companies must begin to adapt their policies, procedures, and corporate cultures right away. IoT will represent a sea change in both the technological landscape and the psychology of the workplace, offering both risks and rewards.
Risk: IoT Can Create a More Impersonal Workplace
IoT has the potential to generate immense value in allowing teams to collaborate across very long distances. In fact, many enterprises are achieving significant operational savings leveraging the new world of mobile connectivity to reduce their office footprint in favor of “virtual teams.” These teams may be distributed globally and might never work face-to-face.
The scholarship behind contributing to and managing such a team is not new, but best practices are only just coming into focus. When team collaboration is mediated through software and long distances, it can be more difficult to understand the nuance behind communication and identify another’s intentions – potentially leading to disruptive misunderstandings.
On the plus side, work is transitioning from “a place where you go” to “a set of activities.” This may ultimately result in greater autonomy for knowledge workers whose contributions may allow them to orbit the “workplace” without necessarily spending a conventional 9-to-5 day there.
Whether this creates a sense of independence or alienation may ultimately depend on whether legal protections continue to endure for professionals who find more and more of their daily contributions being made from an off-site location.
Risk: The Workplace Grows into a Dreaded Panopticon
As mobile connectivity exploded, more and more people found themselves tethered to work on a 24-hour basis through their phones. “Always on” devices have led to an “always on” workplace where many people report discomfort with the idea of not checking their work email at night or over the weekend. This reduces morale and makes off-time less restorative.
The Internet of Things has the unique capability to extend this psychological control far further into the workplace.
Of course, whenever employees are in the office, they must act professionally. However, IoT provides immense capacity to track individual movements throughout the workday, data that – while potentially useful – can reduce autonomy and create a sense of constant observation.
In exchange, this data provides new ways for enterprises to exercise granular control over the resources invested in their physical space. For example, sensors can adjust lighting, temperature, and other internal conditions according to usage – driving down operational costs and waste.
Reward: Greater Safety and Security
Especially in environments like manufacturing and resource extraction, the Internet of Things has potential to mitigate risks that were once believed to be intractable. Safety systems that formerly consisted of a lattice of individual sensors, many of them with separate but interrelated functions, can now be fully integrated into a true network.
That allows systems to capture risk data, inform the relevant parties before danger arises, and extrapolate based on performance in one area where risks are more likely to arise in other areas. This will free individual contributors from constantly being concerned about safety while giving safety experts the opportunity to focus on high-level operations.
Of course, there is something to be said for the current model of industrial safety, which relies greatly on individual vigilance. Workers may be able to spend less time thinking actively about safety, but they shouldn’t lose sight of the fundamentals that keep them safe – after all, systems can fail. The addition of redundant safety systems on workers’ smartphones may go some way toward mitigating this risk, but is not a sound replacement for foundational training.
Reward: The Value of Deep Quantification
The quantification possibilities in the Internet of Things can produce crucial operational insights even when staying broadly “out of the way” of personnel. Workflow tracking and performance monitoring have the potential to become an ever-present “big stick” that will loom large in employees’ minds – but they can also be used in a way that enriches efforts at all levels.
When big data capture and analysis is combined with proactive, positive intervention, it could create win-win situations for all involved. For example, IoT devices using machine vision technology may be able to discover inefficiencies in a common process, whether on the manufacturing floor or the sales floor. Rather than being perceived to punish individuals, however, new procedures and training could be developed to raise staff to the next level.
In the coming years, enterprises will have an enormous challenge to face: Collecting and sorting an unprecedented amount of data about every area of operations. Hidden within this ocean of data will be insights that could drive productivity and efficiency up while reducing costs to perhaps their leanest possible levels. Whether this change supports the development of confident, adaptable employees, however, will depend on how data is used for – or on – those employees.
If IoT is perceived solely as a way to discipline and punish the workforce in a more pervasive way than ever, it is sure to be resisted both passively and actively. If, however, the same big data insights are used to “sharpen the saw,” developing new ways to support all functional areas in doing their best possible work, it may be a boon across all levels of business. Deep quantification gives IoT the potential to cut down on unproductive meeting time and optimize schedules for improved results, for example – two goals virtually all organizations hold, but often have no path to reach.
Ethics and Technology Must Meet to Achieve Sustainable, Positive Results with IoT
Up until recently, all things related to Internet connectivity were seen as operating exclusively in the realm of the information technology expert. To capture lasting, positive results from IoT, however, enterprises may need to take a more nuanced view of how technology impacts the workplace. Unlike the broad macro-trends of, say, smartphone ownership, IoT will impact each organization that embraces it in a very different way.
Enterprises can get off to a good start by envisioning IoT implementation as a cross-functional endeavor. Human Resources professionals – especially those concerned with performance management and professional development – should have a place at the table in crafting and introducing IoT strategy. Likewise, directors should encourage managers to have an “ear to the ground” in understanding how IoT impacts morale. Direct feedback mechanisms will also help.
The age of IoT is only beginning. Many of its greatest contributions remain years away. By taking a holistic, ethical view of IoT, however, companies can truly lay the foundation to harness its growing potential. Planning and forethought will help leadership teams develop an Internet of Things approach that delivers ROI while respecting the indispensable human factor.
USC’s online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program is uniquely structured to explore human behavior in great depth to inform real-world business decisions that affect both organizational and consumer behavior. The program clearly focuses on the psychology that drives human capital and consumer audiences rather than only the bottom line metrics of organizational performance.